Junior Rawlins has been a caretaker of the Mapulehu Mango Patch for almost three decades. His home is set at the foot of the mango patch, and at the moment his daughter Cindy is intent on making a batch of mango with shoyu and vinegar. She steps outside to procure a green mango from the nearest tree. The lowest-hanging fruit, a fist-size green mango, is a few feet out of reach.
Relying on astonishing muscle memory—she relates a story about lazy days at the local pool where the kids would take rocks, “fly ’em at the mango tree and eat ’em for lunch with potato chips”—Cindy picks up a small stone and hurls it at the mango, which falls to the ground instantly with a satisfying thump.
She proceeds to peel it and slice it into chunks, serving it with a bowl of shoyu, vinegar, sugar and pepper; when she has hot chilis, she likes to add those, too. As we dip slices into the intense salty-tart-sweet-spicy mixture, we talk with her father about the mango patch.
In 1940 the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association planted three dozen mango varieties in neat, parallel rows in the forty-acre seaside grove. With some 1,500 to 2,000 trees, it was the largest mango orchard in Hawai‘i and home to the Mapulehu mango, also called the Joe Welch (true to standard practice, the name traces back to the tree’s original planter).
“People love this fruit,” Suiso says of the Mapulehu— and the evidence of that abounds. As one fan wrote of the Mapulehu in his web blog, “These mangoes aren’t stringy, they’re a deep orange, not that yellowish hue like most mangoes. They’re juicy to the max, the flesh almost melting in your mouth. And when refrigerated, they’re the most refreshing, healthiest snack you could ever imagine.”
The Mapulehu is one of a second generation of Island mangoes—reportedly a Haden-Pirie hybrid—that has gained traction locally. A 1993 report from the University of Hawai‘i’s Department of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources even called the Haden and Pirie “obsolete,” citing more favorable cultivars of better quality and productivity.
The HSPA stopped maintaining the trees in the mango patch in 1983, and today those trees are upward of one hundred feet tall, as tall as mango trees get. They still bear fruit —it’s just challenging to pick it.
When the HSPA took leave, Larry Helm, Junior Rawlins and Kalele Logan took over. They built old-time wagons inspired by John Wayne movies, brought in their horses and, in 1984, established the Moloka‘i Wagon Ride.
“We just wanted to be Hawaiians,” Rawlins said, describing the tour’s modus operandi. The horse-drawn wagons carried about thirty guests a day up to ‘Ili‘ili‘opae Heiau, then back down through the mango patch to a lu‘au on the beach. In the course of the journey, they shared history, played guitar, sang songs, danced and ate fresh-caught fish. “It took off like wildfire,” says Rawlins. Helm made T-shirts that proclaimed, “I got mangoed on Moloka‘i,” and with the help of their families, the trio made and sold thousands of jars of mango chutney each summer. Visitor Tad Suckling wrote of his experience at the mango patch, “[When] I traveled down the old rutted road with the gigantic intertwined and overgrown mango trees surrounding me, with ripened mangoes dropping like sweet bombs on our car top, making our way to the luau, I was almost beside myself with magical delight.” Suckling even wrote a song about it, “Molokai Slide,” which went on to top the music charts and win Nä Hoku awards for song of the year and single of the year.
As it turns out, Suckling also wrote a tune called “I Like the Mango.” With a nod to the jaunty rhythm of “Molokai Slide,” the lyrics are designed to express the sentiments of mango lovers everywhere:
Don’t want no stringy ones, only like the smooth kind,
but if you bring me green ones, I’ll send you to the chutney line.
Blend ’em with the cream and a little bit of lime,
and you sit in your paradise and sip away the time.
Like ’em just the way they are, sliced on a plate,
nothing like a mango, yeah, they sure taste great!